I have spent quite a bit of time in Italy, but only 2 days, on two separate occasions in Bologna. The first was a Jackson Browne concert where, by good fortune and because of the beauty of one of my friends, we were granted back stage passes. I am sure the concert was wonderful, but I spent most of the time staring down Darryl Hannah who sat just off stage, eating an apple. It took her the entire concert to finish it. Having eaten an apple or two in my life, I couldn’t imagine how she could nurse it a full 3 hours. From that moment on, I really didn’t like her. I mean really…here we are in the middle of the gastronomic paradise and she is eating an apple? Pul-leese!
The second time I was here was with my parents. They came to visit me in Florence and we made a “pit” stop on our way to Lake Como. Pre-Clooney Como. It was then that I first tried Pasta Bolognese. Growing up Italian, it would figure that I would have eaten it a million times.
But here’s the thing….
Not all Italians eat the same things. First, Italy is broken up into regions. Each region has a way of cooking, and a way of speaking for that matter. My family is Southern Italian…Napolitan, Sicilian, Calabrese and Pugliese. That is 4 separate dialects and 4 different styles of cooking. The natural resources are primarily tomatoes, seafood, herbs, lemons, vegetables, hard wheat flour. This is the food that I was familiar with. To further complicate matters, my mom has distinct likes and dislikes. So she basically extricated risotto, gnocchi, polenta, soup (with the exception of lentil and tortellini in brodo) from our table.
Before you start thinking, how sad…my mother is an excellent cook. She filled our table with delicious and beautifully balanced meals. No one can cook like mia mamma. Her sugo was filled with sausage, pork chops, beef ribs and special napolitan meat balls. If left unattended my sister and I would stand over the simmering pot with a loaf of bread dipping and double dipping and triple dipping as hot sauce would drip down our arms and our bellies would fill. Thank goodness I was an athlete, otherwise my bed would have had to been reinforced.
Which brings me to my current culinary experience. We, my mom, my sister and I, are in Bologna making and tasting food. This region—Emilia-Romangna is touted as the best food region in Italy. Although I trust Mario Batali, I trust but verify.
For the next seven days, we will be cooking and tasting our way through the region.
Starting with tonight. Our lovely guides for the trip are Marcello and Rafaella Tori of Bluone travels. www.bluone.com. They are a small operation that will tailor a tour specifically to your tastes and desires. They are “foodies” and so for us, the perfect guides.
We arrived in Bologna after a long day, plus, of travel. After checking into our hotel and freshening up, we walked about Bologna for a bit….just to get the lay of the land. In the evening, we drove outside the city to enjoy a nice dinner in a small trattoria-osteria in the village of Castel San Pietro Terme, called Cicceria.
I was very tired, but also anxious to try the local cuisine. It did not disappoint. The house wine was a wonderful San Giovese. Perhaps it was the atmosphere, perhaps it was my exhaustion, perhaps it was the adorable waiter..but it was absolutely the most delightful wine. It paired perfectly with the antipasto of piedina fritta (fried bread), squacquarole (an unbelievable cheese that seemed a combination of cottage cheese, mascarpone and fresh mozzarella), pickled shallots and a very unusual pork salami called ciccioli. I could have stopped there, but in the interest of you, my dear readers, I kept eating.
We then were served a heaping platter of tagliatelle con porcini. Do you know, that prior to this meal, I had never eaten a FRESH porcini mushroom. I have only eaten dried. They are good, but they aren’t fresh. Fresh porcini mushrooms are supple and nutty and have ruined my taste for dried mushrooms. Its like the difference between a piece of cherry pie and a pop tart. For the main course we tried the castrato. Castrated lamb. Why it was important to tell us the lamb was castrated is yet to be understood, but it was good. Sliced thinly, still on the bone and then grilled, you could hardly tell it was lamb at all. I’m not a big fan of lamb…but after several glasses of wine, I can be convinced. It was mild and well cooked and I liked it well enough. My mother and sister, who eat lamb, thought it was spectacular. So there. Dessert, in my opinion, is not a strong suit in Italy. With the exception of gelato, which is well…perfect. We ordered a couple of things, but neither one knocked my socks off. I could have gone for another round of the antipasti instead.
Tomorrow we head to the Parmesan cheese factory and to the home of a balsamic vinegar artisan. I wish I could transport the smell and sound of this wonderful Italian region as it is really something to behold. Tomorrow I will do a bit of video and try and capture its spirit, if only a little bit.
until then...vai tranquile mi amici.